The Economic Outlook Is Looking Up: Leading Indicators Rise in July

Shopping in July
By Jason Lange

A gauge of future U.S. economic activity improved in July on a drop in new claims for jobless benefits and an increase in housing permits, although the reading still pointed to sluggish growth ahead.

The Conference Board said on Friday its Leading Economic Index climbed 0.4 percent to 95.8, reversing a 0.4 percent decline in June.

Analysts surveyed by Reuters had forecast the index would rise 0.2 percent in July.

Fewer jobless claims last month was the biggest driver in the increase of the index, the Conference Board said. Also, building permits jumped during the month, which could point to more construction down the road.

Strong retail sales during July has boosted the view that economic growth will pick up in the second half of the year but remain lackluster. Growth and hiring were disappointing in the spring, boosting expectations the Federal Reserve could unleash more economic stimulus.

Consumer Confidence - Sites To Help You Vet The Stores You Shop
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The Economic Outlook Is Looking Up: Leading Indicators Rise in July

Responsible Shopper

Responsible Shopper is designed to alert consumers and investors to problems within companies and to "encourage individuals to use their economic clout to demand greater corporate responsibility," according to the website.

Culling from a range of sources including news stories and reports from watchdog organizations, the site takes an investigative approach to track everything from abuses by well-known firms to their track record on labor practices, corporate governance and the environment. Consumers can search through hundreds of company profiles to vet a firm on a number of issues. A recent visit to Responsible Shopper turned up links to a list of companies that use child labor, as well as a link to "most viewed profiles," which this week were Walmart, Coca-Cola (KO) and the Gap (GPS).

Better World Shopper

Better World Shopper aims to deliver an exhaustive account of the social and environmental record of "every company on the planet."

The site monitors companies' records on social justice issues -- from their policies on fair wages to their health and safety records -- as well as other misdeeds, including discrimination, human-rights violations (like sweatshop factory conditions and third-world community exploitation), and environmental no-no's such as "greenwashing."

Shoppers can also find lists of the best and worst companies according to Better World Shopper's criteria, and check on the grade -- from A to F -- that a company earned for its record on a given issue.

Corporate Accountability International

Corporate Accountability International bills itself as a pioneer in the movement, having been "waging and winning campaigns to challenge corporate abuse for more than 30 years," according to its web site. CAI appeals to consumers with activist impulses by spotlighting offending companies and provides "action you can take -- petitions, letter-writing campaigns, etc.," Cone says.

One recent visit to the site, which has a newsy feel, turned up a link to "corporate hall of shame winners," as well as updates on a number of CAI campaigns, such as efforts to push fast-food giants to curb what the organization deems the industry's contribution to diet-related diseases.

The Ethisphere Institute

This international think tank is devoted to the "creation, advancement and sharing of best practices in business ethics, corporate social responsibility, anti-corruption and sustainability," its site says.

Denise Bowyer, vice president of American Income Life Insurance Company, cited Ethisphere as one of the sites she consults while shaping her company's advocacy agenda on behalf of working families. "Ethisphere conducted data analysis on hundreds of companies based on their research and a survey that measured against seven distinct categories," Bowyer says.

These include corporate citizenship and responsibility; corporate governance; innovation that contributes to the public well-being; industry leadership; executive leadership and tone from the top; legal, regulatory and reputation track record; and internal systems and ethics/compliance program.

Ethical Consumer

This U.K. site is a source for information on offending companies and their misconduct, Cone says. A visit to Ethical Consumer turned up its signature "active boycott list," which tallies current boycotts of high-profile retail and consumer products companies for all manner of alleged offenses, from sweatshop factory conditions to environmental infractions and animal rights abuses.

Ethical Consumer also researches company behavior and measures that data against 23 ethical criteria.

Want to know a company's political leanings and campaign contributions? This nonpartisan organization, a part of the Center for Responsive Politics, tracks just that. Consumers can type in a company name on the site and pull up a record of its political contributions.

This site also follows the political spending trends and patterns of major industries.


Shoppers inclined to gauge the cause-worthiness of their purchases can consult the Good Guide, a definitive source of information on the health, environmental and social impacts of retail consumer products.

Climate Counts

This site rates the world's biggest companies on their climate impact in a bid to spur "corporate climate responsibility," as well as conscious consumption on the part of shoppers.

"The indicators point to slow growth through the end of 2012," said Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board.

"However, back-to-school sales are better than expected, suggesting that the consumer is starting to come back," he said.
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